54. Preparing for Martyrdom and Judgment (Luke 12:4-12)

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Gospel Parallels §155

James J. Tissot, 'The First Shall Be Last' (1886-94)
James J. Tissot, 'The First Shall Be Last' (1886-94), gouache on gray wove paper, 6.75 x 9.2 in., Brooklyn Museum, New York.

4  "I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. 5  But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after the killing of the body, has power to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him. 6  Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God. 7  Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don't be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.

8  "I tell you, whoever acknowledges me before men, the Son of Man will also acknowledge him before the angels of God. 9  But he who disowns me before men will be disowned before the angels of God. 10  And everyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven. 11  "When you are brought before synagogues, rulers and authorities, do not worry about how you will defend yourselves or what you will say, 12  for the Holy Spirit will teach you at that time what you should say."  (Luke 12:4-12, NIV)

There's nothing like a brush with death, a near-death experience, to clear your head and help you very quickly to decide what is important and what is not.

Jesus has escaped from angry crowds seeking to throw him over a cliff at Nazareth (Luke 4:28-30). He knows what the stakes are if he continues on the way he is going. Beginning with the Beelzebub incident (11:14-26) and now accelerated by his dinner confrontation with the scribes and Pharisees, Jesus is even more aware that his days on earth are numbered. He is aware that the scribes and Pharisees are now actively plotting his downfall and demise (11:53-54).

It is time to train his disciples in the uncomfortable necessity of being ready for death and judgment.

But death is a subject people just do not want to talk about, even Christians. I remember planning a two-lesson series for my adult Sunday school class years ago about a Christian view of death and funerals. It was obvious at the first lesson that the group didn't want to go here. Talk of funerals brought up too many painful memories of loved ones departed. Of anguish and separation. Of longing and loathing. I scrapped the second lesson.

But unless disciples are prepared to die for their cause, they are not prepared to live for it. Jesus predicted his death and then said:

"If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it. What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit his very self? If anyone is ashamed of me and my words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his glory and in the glory of the Father and of the holy angels." (Luke 9:23-26)

That had been the disciples' "lesson one." Today Jesus gives them "lesson two" of their discipleship training on persecution and judgment. He offers four motivations for his disciples:

  1. Fear of being cast into hell (12:4-5),
  2. The love, knowledge, and care of God (12:6-7),
  3. The threat of being disowned by Jesus himself (12:8-9), and
  4. The assurance that the Holy Spirit will help disciples offer a clear testimony to their persecutors (12:11-12).

Don't Fear Your Persecutors (Luke 12:4)

Let's examine the first motivation: fear.

"I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more." (12:4)

There is a whole business discipline called "risk management." It involves providing adequate insurance for companies and for protecting financial investments against possible downsides. By nature, risk management is conservative. What is the worst that can happen? Is that an acceptable risk given the possible gains? How can we minimize the risk?

That was not how Jesus approached his life and ministry. But he wanted his disciples to assess the risks up-front. What is the worst that can happen? he asks. Death.

The worst that Jesus' opponents could do is to kill him -- and then kill his disciples. That's it. And then, incredibly, Jesus says, That's all: "... and after that can do no more" (verse 4).

One of the reasons we fear death is that we cannot see beyond it. Our worldview sees the present clearly and the afterlife with extreme fuzziness. But Jesus is teaching his disciples about the kingdom of God. He is teaching them not to fear death. In John's Gospel he says:

"Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me. In my Father's house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am." (John 14:1-3)

My dear friend, fear of death is natural, just as the fear of the unknown is natural. But Jesus wants to take away our fear of death. That's part of being like Jesus. It's part of our school of discipleship.

Fear God Instead (Luke 12:5)

"But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after the killing of the body, has power to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him." (12:5)

Some people would strongly disagree with Jesus at this point. Love, not fear, should be the Christian's primary motivator, they would say. They would quote the Apostle John,

"There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love" (1 John 4:18).

And that is true. But love is not the Christian's only motivator, especially for the immature Christian.

My experience raising children is that, in the early training stage especially, fear is an important motivator. A child who does not fear his parents' wrath is a bratty child. But as children mature, they are more and more motivated by their parents' love. In my own struggle against sin, fear used to be the strongest motivator. But now, grief at betraying my Father's love is a much stronger motivation. I'm growing, and gradually I'm learning.

Throughout the Bible the key phrase to indicate a person with faith in God is "God-fearing." We see that same phrase used in Luke, too:

"His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation." (1:50)

"In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared about men." (18:2, 4)

"But the other criminal rebuked him. 'Don't you fear God,' he said, 'since you are under the same sentence?'" (23:40)

When someone can make us fear him, then that person controls us. Cowardice results when we fear our opponents more than we fear God.

Jesus deals honestly with this basic human emotion of fear as he trains his disciples. Don't be overcome with your fear of men, he says. The most they can do is take your life; but your heavenly Father has power over eternal life, and that is much more important than physical life.

Throwing a Person into Hell (Luke 12:5)

"Fear him who ... has power to throw you into hell" (Luke 12:5) The phrase makes us uncomfortable. The Jehovah's Witnesses go so far as to deny that there is an eternal hell. Hell isn't consistent with a loving God, many would argue.

It's okay for us to be troubled. But it is not okay for us to place our values higher than Jesus' values, and substitute our preferences for Jesus' clear teaching. We don't know more about love than Jesus does. Our knowledge of love is very meager compared to his.

It might surprise you, but the concept of burning in hell was not invented by medieval clergymen intent upon controlling the populace (though they surely used it for that purpose). I was surprised when I found that Jesus says more about hell than any other person in the Bible -- by far. Largely what we know about hell we learn from Jesus himself. Oh, our culture's mythology, with the help of John Milton's Paradise Lost (1667) and Charles Dickens' Christmas Carol (1843) have elaborated upon it. Some parts of the mythology even have Satan responsible for throwing people into hell. But he has no such authority. Jesus tells us that God alone has the authority to throw a person into hell.

The King James Version translates two words as "hell": hadēs, the Greek word for the place of the dead, the underworld, and gehenna, the place of punishment.493 Greek Gehenna refers to the "Valley of the Sons of Hinnom," a ravine just south of Jerusalem. Here child sacrifices had been made to the false god Molech. It was written of evil King Ahaz:

"He burned sacrifices in the Valley of Ben Hinnom and sacrificed his sons in the fire, following the detestable ways of the nations the Lord had driven out before the Israelites." (2 Chronicles 28:3)

"The fire" was identified early with the Valley of Hinnom. It was also a place where the prophet Jeremiah pronounced terrible curses of God's judgment and slaughter of the wicked (Jeremiah 7:31-32; 19:1-6). Isaiah saw the judgment of the wicked in terms of burning: "And they will go out and look upon the dead bodies of those who rebelled against me; their worm will not die, nor will their fire be quenched, and they will be loathsome to all mankind" (Isaiah 66:24). By the second century BC, the Valley of Hinnom had come to be equated with the hell of the Last Judgment.494

There is some evidence that the Valley of Hinnom was the refuse dump of Jerusalem. The Prophet Jeremiah identifies the location of the Valley of Hinnom as "near the entrance of the Potsherd Gate" (Jeremiah 19:2), that is, the place where broken pots were discarded. New Testament scholar Joachim Jeremias observes, "It was still in modern times the place for rubbish, carrion, and all kinds of refuse."495 Jeremias also cites an ancient Jewish document that identifies the Dung Gate as leading to the Valley of Hinnom.496 It is logical, then, that it was a place where garbage burned continually.497 If Gehenna also has the connotation of burning refuse and garbage and uncleanness, then James' comment, that the tongue "is itself set on fire by Gehenna" is particularly apt (James 3:6).

In Jesus' phrase, "Fear him who ... has power to throw you into hell," the word "power" is Greek exousia, which carries the idea of "ability, capability, might, power," as does the Greek word dunamis, but also "the power or authority exercised by rulers, etc. by virtue of their office."498 Satan has neither the capability nor the right to throw people into hell. That is reserved to God. The word "throw" is the Greek word emballō, "throw (into)."499

In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus uses a similar phrase about one's whole body being thrown into gehenna, but uses the more common Greek verb ballō, "throw" (Matthew 5:29-30; 18:8-9), also found in the phrase, "throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth" (Matthew 13:50). In the phrase, "cast out into outer darkness, where there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth" (Matthew 8:12; 22:13), we find yet another Greek verb ekballō, "drive out, expel, literally, 'throw out' more or less forcibly,"500 the word used for expelling demons from a person's body.

Should you fear God's wrath against sin? Should you fear the punishment of hell for your transgressions? Without the mercy and grace of God's forgiveness and forbearance, Jesus paints the picture of a fiery hell as the sure end of God's enemies.

Valuing Sparrows, Numbering Hairs (Luke 12:6-7)

"Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God. Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don't be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows." (12:6-7)

Fear of God's wrath should not be the only motivator to help disciples deal with persecution and the threat of death. There is also God's love that cares for the whole as well as the details. Here Jesus talks about the monetary value of birds. We may eat chicken and turkey, but in Jesus' day some wild birds were sold as food. The Greek word is strouthion, a diminutive form of strouthos, "sparrow," though here it means any small bird used for food, since sparrows themselves were not eaten.501

Jesus uses the argument of the smaller to the greater here. If cheap sparrows are not forgotten by God, how much more you, who "are worth more than many sparrows" (12:7). (I think I see here a hint about human life being valued more than animal life.)

Notice the full sentence: "Don't be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows." Don't be afraid of what? Don't be afraid that God will forget you, abandon you. He won't. He can't. You are beloved by God and he can no more forget you than cut off part of himself. God spoke through the Prophet Isaiah when the people did fear that God had forsaken them:

"Can a mother forget the baby at her breast
and have no compassion on the child she has borne?
Though she may forget,
I will not forget you!
See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands;
your walls are ever before me." (Isaiah 49:15-16)

Do not be afraid of impoverishment or death, says the writer of Hebrews:

"Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said,
    'Never will I leave you;
    never will I forsake you.'
So we say with confidence,
    'The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid.
    What can man do to me?'" (Hebrews 13:5-6)

Do you fear the wrong things? Take heart from the Word of God that assures you that God will never leave or forsake you. He always has you in mind. He values you much more than sparrows whose life he also knows.

To underscore his point, Jesus says, "Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered." Now mine number fewer than they used to. But that isn't the point. Jesus wants us to know that God knows us intimately. We are not identified in his records merely as a "soul number," but as a person who is distinct and about which he knows every minute detail -- and still loves us!

Acknowledging Jesus before Men (Luke 12:8-9)

"I tell you, whoever acknowledges me before men, the Son of Man will also acknowledge him before the angels of God. But he who disowns me before men will be disowned before the angels of God." (12:8-9)

Jesus is still speaking in terms of preparing his disciples -- and you and me -- to withstand the pressure of persecution. He is steadying us so that the fear of our persecutors does not cause us to deny our allegiance to Jesus.

The word translated "acknowledge" (NIV) or "confess" (KJV) is Greek homologeō, "declare (publicly), acknowledge, confess,"502 "declare allegiance to."503 It is used as the antonym of Greek arneomai, "deny, repudiate, disown, refuse."504 The mention of the angels of God indicates that the person who disowns Christ is irrevocably disowned and repudiated before the court of heaven at the final judgment. This must have been an awesome statement to believers who were threatened with death unless they would disown Jesus.

Confessing and Denying Jesus in History

I have quoted it before, but it is one of my favorite sayings of Church history, from St. Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna, who in AD 155 was hauled before a Roman magistrate who insisted that he deny Christ upon pain of death:

"When the magistrate pressed him, and said, 'Swear, and I will release you; revile Christ,' Polycarp said, 'Eighty-six years have I been serving him, and he has done me no wrong; how then can I blaspheme my king who saved me?'"505

In AD 303, the Roman Emperor Diocletian ordered a brutal persecution of all Christians. Those suspected of following the Lord were ordered to sacrifice to pagan gods.

Ministers, bishops, and lay people were dragged to prison. Savage tortures were unleashed on Christians all over the empire. Believers were fed to wild animals. Some were forced to fight gladiators for their lives while bloodthirsty crowds screamed for their death. Women suffered dehumanizing torment. Saints were beaten senseless, others set aflame while still alive.

Those who survived Diocletian's torture chambers were called "saints" or "confessors" by the people, because they didn't forsake their confession that Jesus Christ is Lord. St. Nicholas, Bishop of Myra (St. Nick) was one of these.506

Church historians tell us that the twentieth century saw more martyrs for Christ than all the previous centuries of church history combined. The issues of confessing Jesus publicly are still with us. Christians must still be prepared to die rather than deny Christ.

Forgiveness and Unforgiveness (Luke 12:10)

One of the most difficult struggles of the Church in the days following the Diocletian persecution was how to deal with those who had denied Christ during this time. Some congregations offered them forgiveness after a time of penance; others did not. Those churches that forgave, did so on the example of Peter, who shamefully denied Jesus three times (22:54-62) and was restored three times by Jesus to his calling to "feed my sheep" (John 21:15-19).

"And everyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven." (12:10)

How should one interpret the first clause? Does it allow forgiveness for those who denied Christ and then seek forgiveness? Perhaps so (though Hebrews 6:4-6 and 10:26-31 seem to question this). The future tense "will be forgiven" indicates that the Last Judgment is indicated. Marshall adds,

"It would not need to be pointed out to a Jewish audience that the forgiveness promised here is not granted automatically, but is conditional on the repentance of the person seeking it."507

What Is the Unforgivable Sin?

As a pastor, I find that I am sometimes approached by people who tell me, "I think I have committed the unforgivable sin." They feel that they have sinned beyond God's ability or willingness to forgive. They feel that God cannot forgive them. Certainly they cannot forgive themselves, so how could God forgive them?

This passage, and its parallels in the other Synoptic Gospels, seems to indicate that it is possible to blaspheme the Holy Spirit without any hope of forgiveness -- but our passage doesn't give any clues to what that means. It does give clues about what it might mean to "speak a word against the Son of Man," that is, by denying him or failing to confess him under persecution. But the idea of blasphemy against the Spirit isn't treated in this passage.

The most helpful way to understand it, then, is to turn to a parallel where the context is clearer. In Mark's Gospel, the saying is placed in the context of Jesus being accused of casting out demons by Beelzebub (Mark 3:22-30). The scribes accuse him of being possessed by Beelzebub, by an "evil spirit" (Mark 3:22, 30). Jesus says:

"'I tell you the truth, all the sins and blasphemies of men will be forgiven them. But whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven; he is guilty of an eternal sin.' He said this because they were saying, 'He has an evil spirit.'" (Mark 3:28-30)

In other words, when men attribute to Satan the work of the Holy Spirit, they blaspheme the Holy Spirit. We've seen things that seem to approach this in our day, when, for example, the gifts of the Holy Spirit are called by critics the manifestations of demons. Indeed, gifts of the Holy Spirit can be counterfeited and it is important that we carefully discern and test them (Matthew 24:24; Mark 13:22; 1 Corinthians 14:29; 1 Thessalonians 5:19-21). But I don't think that Christians mistaking the real thing for counterfeits have really committed blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. I've found that God is very gracious, and people often change their mind later. In the Gospels, we have Jesus' opponents saying that Jesus is filled with an evil spirit. The charge comes from hardened hearts and pride-blinded eyes. They don't discern either Jesus or the Spirit.

I have met a number of people who were troubled that they had committed the unforgivable sin. But their hearts longed for Jesus and to know the Spirit's fullness -- just the opposite of people who are unforgivable. The problem is more likely a poor understanding of God's grace, some kind of neurosis (yes, churches sometimes attract some very neurotic people), deep depression, or the experience of "the dark night of the soul" that Richard Foster discusses in Prayer: Finding the Heart's True Home (HarperSanFrancisco, 1992). On the other hand, I have met some hardened atheists and agnostics who claim they used to believe in Jesus but no longer do. They seem uncaring, unmoved by the Gospel.

I admit that the unforgivable sin is difficult to understand. But I am certain that any Christian who sincerely seeks to know God hasn't committed this sin. The longing for God is in itself the cry of the Spirit within saying, "Abba, Father" (Romans 8:16; Galatians 4:6). If you had committed the unforgivable sin, you wouldn't be studying JesusWalk and seeking to follow Jesus. Doubt your own feelings; don't doubt God's grace, for he has promised never to leave you or forsake you (Hebrews 13:5).

The Holy Spirit Will Help You Bear Witness (Luke 12:11-12)

"When you are brought before synagogues, rulers and authorities, do not worry about how you will defend yourselves or what you will say, for the Holy Spirit will teach you at that time what you should say." (Luke 12:11-12)

There will be times when Christians faced with imprisonment or martyrdom are placed on trial for their faith. (Someone has asked probingly: "If you were on trial for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?") The question isn't whether the Christians will get off and be released. The question is whether you will offer a good testimony for Jesus on that occasion, whether you will confess him clearly and boldly. Many who do confess him will be convicted and sentenced, but their boldness for Jesus will continue to echo in the ears of the onlookers and oppressors, and will eventually bring some of them to faith. Jesus' own clear confession at his trial and crucifixion gives us an example. So does Stephen's clear testimony to Christ as Saul of Tarsus held the garments of those who stoned him to death (Acts 7).

There is a powerful promise here, that the Holy Spirit will teach us (Greek didaskō) what we should say. Sometimes this passage has been used for a reason not to study or prepare, not to learn how to give a clear testimony, not to go to Bible school or seminary (against 2 Timothy 2:15 and 1 Peter 3:15). But it has nothing to do with this. Rather, it is a promise that the Holy Spirit will not desert us when we are persecuted and on trial, but will enable us by divine inspiration to speak the words that our opponents need to hear, words that glorify Christ. Sometimes, persecution threatens to wipe out the Christian faith in whole regions and countries. But it seldom succeeds. Tertullian's words from the third century ring out to our own century: "The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church." The Spirit-inspired words of the martyrs are indeed effective in revitalizing Christ's Church.

Learning how to act as Jesus' true disciples in situations of persecution and possible martyrdom is not fun. It may not even seem relevant to us in the comfortable West. It may not fit our theology. It is a sobering lesson at the very least. But it is so important that Jesus has repeated it so we his disciples won't miss it. It may be a lesson that you need to internalize right now for a crucial time you will face shortly. Who knows?


Father, help me to be faithful to you. If Peter could deny you when he felt his life was on the line, I am certainly vulnerable. Let your roots penetrate deep within me. Help me to be faithful in my daily life to live and speak in such a way that you are not hidden, but that you receive the glory due your name. I am weak but you are strong. Be my strength, O Lord. In Jesus' name, I pray. Amen.

Key Verse

"I tell you, whoever acknowledges me before men, the Son of Man will also acknowledge him before the angels of God. But he who disowns me before men will be disowned before the angels of God." (Luke 12:8-9)


Click on the link below to discuss on the forum one or more of the questions that follow -- your choice.

  1. Jesus gives four arguments for remaining faithful to him in times of persecution in 12:4-12. What are these four arguments?
  2. In the light of speaking and thinking positively, how should we evaluate Jesus' use of fear to motivate his disciples? How should this influence our own motivational methods?
  3. How do you know that it is God, rather than Satan, spoken of in 12:5-6, who can both kill men and throw them into hell?
  4. How do thoughts of sparrows and hair counts assure Jesus' disciples? (12:6-7)
  5. It is not too difficult when a person is called before a persecutor or court of law to determine if that person has acknowledged or denied Christ. How much, if any, does Jesus' teaching apply to how we identify, or fail to identify ourselves as Christians, to those who come to know us? To whom are we obligated to identify our faith as Christians?
  6. Extra Credit: Christians in countries under Muslim and Hindu and Communist law have sometimes been executed for their faith. Is there a time to be a "secret" Christian, and what are the "rules" in those situations? We Westerners don't have to face this first hand, so we'll try not to speculate. Rather, in our e-mail discussion groups, let us hear from Christians who live in areas of active persecution. Please tell us what you have learned. We need your wisdom.
  7. Do you have an example to share of how the Holy Spirit has given you the words to say in situations of persecution?
  8. If God will forgive those who deny Christ, isn't it ultimately safer for believers to deny Christ now and then repent later?
Discipleship Training in Luke's Gospel, by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Lessons compiled in 805-page book in paperback, Kindle, & PDF.


Abbreviations and References

[493] I discuss this more thoroughly in my article, "Did Jesus Believe in Hell" in conjunction with my Sermon on the Mount Bible study series. www.joyfulheart.com/manifesto/hell.htm

[494] Joachim Jeremias, gehenna, TDNT 1:657-658.

[495] Joachim Jeremias, Jerusalem, p. 17.

[496] Ibid., p. 310.

[497] Both David John Wieand, "Hinnom, Valley of," ISBE 2:717, citing Lightfoot; and Leon Morris, Matthew, Eerdmans, 1992, p. 115, see this as a possibility.

[498] Exousia, Shorter Lexicon, p. 70.

[499] Emballō, Shorter Lexicon, p. 63.

[500] Ekballō, Shorter Lexicon, pp. 58-59.

[501] Marshall, Luke, p. 514.

[502] Homologeō, Shorter Lexicon, p. 139.

[503] Marshall, Luke, p. 515, who cites Otto Michel, TDNT 5:208, n. 27.

[504] Arneomai, Shorter Lexicon, p. 26.

[505] Eusebius, Church History IV, 15, 20.

[506] See my article, "The Real St. Nick," Evangel, December 4, 1988, pp. 4-5. www.joyfulheart.com/xmas/st-nick.htm

[507] Marshall, Luke, p. 517.

Copyright © 2024, Ralph F. Wilson. <pastor@joyfulheart.com> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.

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